So You're Going Your Own Way
When you want to publish your book, whatever genre it’s in, one of the first things you’re gonna hear is, “Well, you need an agent.” Generally speaking, this is true. It’s also very difficult. And most publishers won’t look at your manuscript without one.
A good agent should be your friend and guide to the process. Someone who asks for payment up front is not your friend. A proper agent will take a percentage of what you bring in. There are quite a few phony agents out there these days, and their agenda is not yours.
If you want to sell your book in local stores (I can’t speak to chain stores, and I suspect Amazon will do whatever you need them to do…for a price), I have some advice.
First, if you want to make the book sellable at all, you are going to have to get an editor (like me) and a cover designer. If you have a design or artistic background, you may be able to do a credible cover yourself. It is said you can’t judge a book by its cover, but many customers do just that. Having an editor, however, is not optional, regardless of how good a writer you are. Even if you are already an experienced author, you (and you probably know this) can’t edit yourself. Your eye will zip right over your common literary tics and misspellings. I have them, you have them, every writer has them. You always need a second set of eyes on your work. It’s not hard to find reputable editing services (hint, hint).
To get your book into stores, do your research. I can’t stress this enough. Find a bookstore you’d like to target and go to their web site. Find out what their requirements for author submissions are. Some will want you to stop by with a copy (which will probably not be returned), some just want to communicate via email. Bookstore people are busy people. They’re dealing with hundreds of new books every season. Always be respectful. Remember: you need them more than they need you. The American Booksellers’ Association has an excellent list of recommendations for authors here. And here is an example of author guidelines from Malaprop’s in Asheville, NC. (Note that, as on the Malaprop’s link, some stores will only accept self-published books from local authors.) One last time, always be polite and respectful to all bookstore staff. They are not the help; they are the gatekeepers. And remember that all independent book people in a region talk to each other. Frequently. (And there is plenty of communication across regions too.) If you behave badly at one store, all of them will know, and you will be greeted with less than warm responses if you’re not shunned outright.
Great! The store owner/buyer is amenable. (They generally will be, unless your book is racist/homophobic/advocating violence/spreading misinformation, in which case, you’re on the wrong site.) You will be asked to sign a consignment agreement. This can be another sticking point for some authors, so let’s review the terms. These terms are pretty standard for any independent bookstore. Said terms are non-negotiable. If you don’t like their terms, find another sales channel. I don’t want to sound harsh, but this is the reality of the situation.
Usually, you will be asked for a nonrefundable upfront fee of around $25. You’re basically asking for a faceout (see below), and faceout space ain’t free. The store will typically ask you to leave them with 3-5 copies on consignment. This means a faceout in whatever section your book goes in (i.e., the books are turned so the front cover faces out—hence the need for a good cover). The terms will be specified on the consignment agreement you sign. You will be selling books to the store at a 40% discount (i.e., you will get 60% of any sales, and the store will get 40%). Please do not argue over the percentages with the store. These are standard consignment terms and are usually the same discount as stores get from wholesalers. Complaining about this only makes you look bad; the store is not going to back down.
Also on the agreement is how often you will be paid, which is generally quarterly or semi-yearly (four or two times a year). Payment will be based on sales through the store’s register only. This protects the store from anyone stealing copies of your book, but in practice, this is virtually unheard of. (I guess having someone steal a copy of your book is perversely flattering.) The agreement should also include language that states how long they will stock a book if it doesn't sell. (Generally, this is either six months or a year.) It is YOUR responsibility to keep up with this. A store will usually notify you to come pick up your book if it's not selling, so make sure they are able to get in touch with you. If they can't find you, they will discard the books. Again, please keep in mind that bookstore owners, managers, and buyers are extremely busy people. And please continue to keep it in mind.
Then, if you’re cooperative and respectful, you may be able to set up an author signing for your book. Most stores of any size are booked up weeks, if not months, in advance. You may have to accept an afternoon slot—but, remember, you’re a beginner in a world of pros. If no one shows up to see you, well…. every author I have ever met, up to and including Pat Conroy, has had a signing where no one showed up. This is not a reflection on you or your book. Use the time to get to know the staff at the store. Make new friends.
Second, part A: don’t expect anyone at the store to read your book. There’s an outside chance you might talk someone there into it, but don’t count on it. Keep in mind that bookstores get many many advance copies from big publishers every single day, many more than any of them have time to read. And part B: marketing and talking up your book (or, let’s hope, signing) is up to you. The store may be able to promote you on their site or on social media, but that’s not guaranteed. This is when you call all your friends, friends of friends, and followers to buy your book at the bookstore and come to your event. Please do not emphasize that your book is available on Amazon in your promotional materials. Amazon is the enemy of all independent bookstores. Link first on your own site to your local store. Linking second to bookshop.org would be preferable. Then you can mention B&N and Amazon.
I know some of this will seem onerous to you, but you know by now that being an author isn’t easy. Even if you aren’t successful at first in landing an agent, please don’t stop looking for one. Remember that many, many authors have found mainstream success after self-publishing physically or online. (You may remember a book called Fifty Shades of Grey.) If being an author is your dream, if you’re compelled to write every day, don’t give up. Just keep writing and trying. And remember, you have many resources at your disposal.